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India, Africa and the future of peacekeeping - Part I

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India, Africa and the future of peacekeeping - Part I

Abhijnan Rej

28 May 2019

5min min read
  • Peace-building
  • Peacekeeping forces
  • Political development

ne of India’s most recognised contributions to global security governance has been through its involvement in United Nations peacekeeping operations (UNPKO), beginning with dispatching a medical unit to support UN troops during the Korean War in the 1950s and, more significantly, contributing troops during the Suez Crisis of 1956 (the first instance of New Delhi sending its military abroad to maintain peace under the UN flag). India is currently the fourth-largest contributor to UNPKO. In all, over 200 000 Indian soldiers and police personnel have worn Blue Helmets since the country’s independence in 1947.

New Delhi’s prominent role in some of the most critical UNPKO missions has been repeatedly recognised. Most recently, last week an Indian general was appointed Force Commander of the UN Mission in South Sudan to which India contributes the second largest number of troops (after Rwanda). While India’s contributions to UN-centric peacekeeping will continue to be an important part of its multilateral security posture, it is important to view it as a springboard to its overall stance on global security burden-sharing. This becomes an imperative for three distinct reasons. 

One, UNPKO itself is increasingly under pressure, as western powers have disengaged from Blue Helmet operations since the NATO invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. This implies that capacity of other stakeholders (especially regional ones directly affected by the crises in question) must be built. 

Two, the notion of peacekeeping itself – nebulous as it is, having never being formalised in the UN Charter and thought to draw its legitimacy from Chapters VI and VII of the Charter – is giving way to more robust forms of intervention. This, in turn, has seriously challenged the sovereignty norm in world politics. 

Three, UNPKO requires UN Security Council (UNSC) unanimity. With the return of great-power rivalry to the international arena, there is a real risk that the attendant UNSC paralysis could render peacekeeping under the UN flag impossible in strategically contentious geographies. Given these critical challenges, India and African states must look ahead beyond the immediate horizon and map a road ahead together.

In order to do so, one must first start with what drives – and inhibits – India’s posture when it comes to military involvement abroad, albeit even in a benign form under the UN flag. (As a matter of convention, India does not participate in military operations led by other sovereign states though in 2003 it came close to sending troops to fight in Iraq as part of the American “coalition of the willing”.) 

At a practical level, analysts have argued that India’s participation in UNPKO in the past have allowed the Indian military to obtain better field experience and training. UN financial reimbursement for peacekeepers have also, they have argued, been a key motivation for India in the past especially in helping maintain a manpower-intensive army. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that UN peacekeeping missions in the past have allowed the Indian and Pakistani armies to work side by side and therefore acted as a much-needed (and otherwise unavailable) socialisation measure. 

At a deeper level – the argument goes – India’s robust participation in UN peacekeeping has allowed the country a greater voice in the United Nations affairs especially as its longstanding bid to a permanent membership in its Security Council remains unfulfilled. That said, it has been convincingly argued that India has been unable to draw enough political capital out of its peacekeeping efforts, and that its participation over the years has been out of “inertia” and not “conscious strategic choices”. 

But India’s position on interventionism – even to protect civilians, a key mandate of UNPKO – has been crucially shaped by its own circumstances. As it continues to be a major player in Blue Helmet missions, New Delhi is rankled by the presence of a UN peacekeeping mission on its own soil, in Kashmir, which was sent to monitor a ceasefire line after the first war between India and Pakistan, in January 1949. 

Soon after coming to office in 2014, the Modi government (which returned to power for a second term last week) asked the UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan – as this mission is known – to vacate its government-provided New Delhi premises on the ostensible ground that the Kashmir issue is purely bilateral, and that the UN therefore had no role to play in it. India also continues to bristle at UN reports on alleged human rights violations in the part of Kashmir it administers. India’s Kashmir problem has also, to a large extent, contributed to its rhetorical emphasis on national sovereignty as the fundamental inviolable that any multilateral security action – such as UN peacekeeping – must respect.

That said, India has often not practised what it has preached. As Australian scholar Ian Hall writes, in the 1950s India’s activist position against apartheid in South Africa at the UN lead to the first significant discussions around the “limits of sovereignty and the international community’s rights (or otherwise) to debate, criticise or even intervene in the internal affairs of states that had laws inconsistent with international rules, norms or expectations”. In 1971, the Indian military ‘liberated’ the eastern wing of Pakistan – creating the independent country of Bangladesh – to stop an ongoing genocide by the Pakistani military there. 

In the 1980s, India’s “extraordinarily intrusive engagement in Sri Lanka”, to use the words of two veteran American diplomats who served in South Asia, including training and arming Tamil insurgents in that country. In what was New Delhi’s first – and to date, only – experience in bilateral peacekeeping, an Indian Peacekeeping Force was dispatched to that island nation in July 1987. The ensuing misadventure ended in bloodbath and rout for New Delhi – an experience that continue to serve as a siren of caution when it comes to military engagements abroad however well-intentioned.  

That said, India’s emphasis on state sovereignty – one suspects – would come as music to many African stakeholders. (It should also be noted that the two instances of military interventions mentioned above were in India’s immediate neighbourhood, partly motivated by domestic political factors.) But more than political solidarity, helping develop capacity and cultivating national agency to solve local problems follows as logical corollaries to India’s stance. 

In a speech before the Ugandan parliament in July 2018, Prime Minister Modi noted: “We will build as much local capacity […] as  needed.” While he was referring to India’s developmental strategy, this approach has now started to percolate to peace and security cooperation as well. Over the past four years, India and the United States have partnered to build capacity of African troops for UN peacekeeping efforts through the annual UN Peacekeeping Course for African Partners (UNPCAP-III) programme through a ‘train the trainers’ model.

The first-ever field military exercise, “Afindex-19”, between India and 17 African nations in March this year is expected to have helped contribute to this capacity-building effort.

Read Part II here.

(Main image: Indian army soldiers ahead of their departure to Sudan on a United Nations (UN) Peacekeeping mission in New Delhi on 13 March 2009. An Indian Army Contingent of two Infantry Battalions, some 2000 soldiers including army female soldiers, army doctors and army engineers travelled to Sudan to act as UN peacekeepers. - Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.